The story of James Marshall's gold discovery at Sutter's Mill more than 150 years ago is, in many ways, the story of California. With Marshall's discovery in January 1848, a wild, untamed land once thought of as fit only for trappers, explorers, and adventurers suddenly became the most desired destination in the world. Almost overnight, Alta California became the promised land, full of opportunity and adventure, and no hardship seemed too great to endure in order to get here. Forty-niners of every color and nationality made impossible treks across the arid Great Basin or embarked on an arduous months-long ship voyage to California. It is said that half the male population of Oregon journeyed south, while hundreds of clipper ships brought thousands more from South America, Portugal, Australia, England, Russia, and even China.
Nothing, it seemed, could stop the great California migration. Imagine: San Francisco had a population of less than 1,000 residents when word of Marshall's find was first proclaimed on the dusty streets, and by decade's end it had burgeoned to 50,000. By comparison, it took New York City 190 years to reach that size.
In all, more than 200,000 dreamers streamed into California in the three years following the discovery of gold, looking for riches along the enormous, 30-mile-wide swath in the western foothills of the Sierra known as El Dorado - the "gilded hills." And while the forty-niners eventually took out almost $200 million of the precious metal, they also put a lot wealth back into the land, building great cities and industries along the way. Even when the gold played out, the dreamers kept coming, first via train with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and later by automobile along the great "mother road," Route 66.
Gold, the official state mineral, is the perfect symbol for California, a land that derives its name from a 16th-century Spanish romance novel that whimsically - and perhaps prophetically - established mythical California as a rugged island east of Eden, "abounding in gold." Marshall's discovery nutured that most American of dreams: Here was a place where anyone could come and strike it rich, if not along a gold-filled stream then certainly through other labors of hard work and ingenuity. In the decades following the Gold Rush, entrepreneurs built movie studios and airplane factories, plumbed for water and oil, planted vineyards and orange groves, and constructed an astonishing arterial system of freeways and highways to connect it all. As one historian wrote, "California was founded on gold fever, but it has since thrived on land fever, oil fever, and Hollywood fever."
The same type of adventurous soul who once journeyed to California to prospect for gold and silver in the mountains, now comes looking for treasure in the high-tech industries of Silicon Valley or on the back lots of Hollywood. Others come just to marvel at what latter-day forty-niners created, whether it be the fantasy world of Disneyland, the cultural legacy of the Getty Museum, or the palatial opulence of Hearst Castle. They also come to take in her great cities: San Francisco, with her cable cars and foghorns, grand bridges and thrilling hills, is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city that few can resist. Los Angeles, the brassier sibling, has a forever-youthful enthusiasm that makes her vibrant and alluringly seductive. And San Diego, one of the fastest growing communities in the state, revels in its waterside location and bicultural heritage.
But the most astonishing attractions in California are natural ones: the stunning coastline of Big Sur, the ancient redwood forests, the glacially sculpted beauty of Yosemite, and the deep-blue grandeur of Tahoe, a lake so large and deep that its waters could cover the entire state to a depth of about one foot. It's also a land of extremes where you'll find the lowest elevation in the continental United States at Death Valley not far from the highest, Mount Whitney.
So how to explore this great state? Follow the example of those who came first. Set no limits, cast your net wide, and feel free to follow your heart's inclination. You'll find a multitude of ideas in the pages that follow, but just like those who came to California in search of a dream a century and a half ago, you'll soon realize that the best adventures and the most exciting places are those you discover on your own. If you're as lucky as James Marshall, you too will exclaim, "Eureka! I have found it."